One of the many peculiar traits of extreme music – especially regarding some subgenres – is its cathartic effect, the ability to drag the listener and trigger an inner process. It’s possible that, given the subjective nature of the listener’s experience, the artist’s creative process is left in the background, in some cases tangible, physical and mental pain derived from processing traumas and coming to terms with their own vision of the world, or simply to find a solution, an end to a personal crisis.
Among the most striking examples in the last years there’s Mizmor, meaning psalm in Hebrew, and the man behind it: Liam Neighbors, a.k.a A.L.N., multi-instrumentalist from Oregon and mastermind behind one of the most significant black/doom metal projects of the 2010s. After starting the new decade with Wit’s End and Myopia — the latter together with Thou — it’s time to take a new direction with Prosaic: Liam took the time to explain some things about his new piece of work.
Let’s start with the title: the term prosaic — in Italian as well — has a kind of negative meaning, like dull or boring. The album doesn’t sound boring at all, so what’s the meaning behind the title?
The meaning behind the title is more or less talking about everyday life. The sort of day-in-and-day-out routine that we get into, often built around work and completing tasks, which often gives us a lot of meaning in our life but also becomes monotonous and even annoying. I was kind of just reflecting on the fact that, no matter how superficially exciting a person’s life may seem, at the heart of everyone’s life is the same experience of consciousness. Waking up each morning, deciding how to use the day, putting your feet on the ground and going forth. This can be seen as a negative thing, there’s lots of futility and some sort of meaninglessness that can creep in when reflecting on something like that, but it doesn’t have to been that way. It can be something that’s neutral or even positive, and doing simple tasks can be incredibly profound and meditative. So there’s almost a little bit of irony in calling the album Prosaic, but I thought it was a fitting title because I was seeking to make an album that was less grandiose and epic, that celebrated more the plain and simple.
Also the artwork reflects a more simple and back to the roots kind of life, with simple tasks depicted. I wouldn’t say a self-sufficient one but something like that, more focused on ourselves rather working for some irrealistic scope. I don’t know if that’s the case, but I see some kind of social meaning in this, like the unsustainability of late capitalism, working our ass for something that doesn’t give back to us directly, finding the time to work for something that makes us happy rather than stuff that is distant from us.
Yeah, that’s insightful for sure. The social aspect wasn’t on the forefront of my mind when I was writing the record, but I do think that subconsciously that does affect the way that we feel about the work we do and our relationship to it, what kind of purpose that gives us. I can really relate to the second part of what you said, the emotional side of work, and I feel like that’s about our internal posture or attitude that we can take, towards anything in life, subjective experiences and consciousness in general. But there are valuable things to notice about the nature of experience that I think, for me as a person, are highlighted in doing tasks, which is to kinda draw back and not necessarily identify with any of the suffering that may arise from what you’re doing in life, and in the midst of suffering find a place that is more solid to exist, that’s either neutral or positive, even though there’s still things that are sub-optimal, less than ideal, happening all around you. You don’t have to be so upset or suffer over the fact that you are suffering. You can be less judgemental and less reactive about that, and just experience the moment as it is, and that can be okay.
Is Prosaic an album that you needed to stop for a bit and relieve the pressure? The first albums were very personal and Wit’s End was not as personal but very heavy with all the considerations about the dogmatic and anti-scientific views during the pandemic. I feel this is like something like «let’s stop for a bit and concentrate on simple stuff».
For sure, yeah. It wasn’t intentional in the sense that it’s kind of naturally where I’ve arrived in my thoughts and feelings, but I spent so much time in the last ten/eleven years exploring this topic of faith and loss of faith, and God and Christianity… It took me a while to process, but I’ve gotten a lot of healing and closure and acceptance over this part of my life. I don’t really have anything more to say about that, right now. So definitely I’ve got some sort of finality to that journey and I’m thinking about and feeling new things, and I just want to share. In a sense I feel kind of liberated from needing to talk about them.
And you’re right also about Wit’s End: I shifted towards talking about humanity than talking about myself, but I was still talking about droves of people led by bad ideas, of which religion was a part of, so I feel like I was in a way related to this story that the rest of my discography has laid out. Now I feel, with Prosaic, that it’s just completely fresh and new to me. I’m free to talk about whatever I want and I feel like I kind of transcended this part of my identity. It’ll never not be a part of my identity, what I’ve gone through, and I’m very interested in the topic of religion and other people’s stories about overcoming indoctrination and dogmas and whatnot. That will always be the case, but there’s not a bunch of stuff that needs to be processed for me anymore, so now I’m almost back to square one. What happens now in life? What happens post belief? I’m just here, existing in this absurd reality, I guess I’ll talk about that.
So you’ll still continue as Mizmor, since it’s strictly connected to you as a person, even though that kind of journey has come to a safe and nice place.
Yeah, I mean, mizmor means psalm in Hebrew and I named the project originally because I was literally writing musical prayers to God. Over time, you know, the songs were less and less personally addressed to God as I became agnostic and, eventually, an atheist… The process is still me processing thoughts and feelings, meditating, ruminating in this cathartic and therapeutic way, even though it’s completely secular now. It still feels like they are psalms in a way still, but it has changed: it has become a big part of my identity and I see no reason to change the name, when for me the mechanism is still the same.
I haven’t had the chance of reading the lyrics yet, but is there a narrative arc throughout the songs? Can you tell us something about them in addition to what you already said?
Of course, Prosaic is intentionally less conceptual than my other works. I started out wanting to almost make an anti-concept record, because I feel like I pidgeonholed myself into making these conceptual albums. I’m at a place right now, with my art, where I find this to be kind of self-indulgent, and I wanted to make something a bit more human, raw and straightforward, and almost irreverent compared to my other albums. It could still be valuable, important and profound to say something simple and honest, that is not so obsessed-over or meticolously thought out. So, with Prosaic each song — even though in hindsight I can draw a through line and say broadly what the concept of the record is — is about four different things.
The first song, “Only An Expanse” is about time: the passage of time, the illusion of the construct of linear time as it relates to the construct of the self and how we perceive ourselves as being at some point in time, with the past behind us and the future in front of us, and we are nearly constantly thinking about the past or the future. Regrets and worries, fears and anxieties, nostalgia, and how it’s not like the past and the future have no meaning at all, but I think it could be valuable to break this spell and drop back into the present moment and recognize there is only an expanse of conscience and experience. You don’t need to identify any thought as it arises in your head, any worry about the past or future that can send you spinning off in some narrative about who you are, or who you wanna be, or who you wish you were, and now you’re not in the moment experiencing the raw data anymore: touch, smell, pressure, heat, tingling and so on and so forth.
The second song, “No Place To Arrive”, is really about mindfulness, living in the present moment, distraction and focus. I often find myself thinking thoughts along “the grass is always greener” mentality: if I could only A, B and C, then I would find myself more X, Y, Z, happier, content or whatever. If I could just do this, then this, as if there’s some utopia or place that I’ll get to one day in my life where there aren’t problems anymore. But in reality, the to-do list never runs out. Problems continue, certain problems get wrapped up as soon as a new one pops up and there’s actually no place where you’ll arrive to where that process stops and where you truly have some imagined, perfect form of happiness in your life. You’re as close to that spot now, in the present moment, as you ever will be, so you should just relish the fact that you’re here now, and try to be happier right now than pretending that you’ll be happier in the future, once you get that big raise or whatever it is. Of course it’s not to say that you shouldn’t try to improve yourself and your surroundings and commit to the project of betterment: I think there’s a large amount of happiness that has to do with external circumstances, and if you can change those, then you should, but at the end of the day there’s also this component that’s just how you feel on the inside, despite of your circumstances, and that’s kind of what the song is about.
“Anything But” is a song about escape, escaping the present moment: when we want to distract and numb ourselves, anything but sitting in silence and existing, because existence is so painful and challenging sometimes and we just want something to entertain us or make us forget about that. But a lot of times there’s another sort of illusion that can be broken there, and existence doesn’t have to inherently feel so painful, if you’re not so judgemental and reactive about it and you allow yourself to be okay with the discomfort of life.
The last song, “Acceptance”, is about depression, the sort of cycle of depression that I experience in my life, and becoming more and more okay with it. I think I’ve struggled with depression my whole life, based on what I’ve experienced so far. I manage and treat my depression, but it’ll never go away forever. So I’ve realized that the more actively I try to solve that problem, the more I notice it and suffer over it. I’ve gained a lot of benefit from trying to make friends with it, or just accepting it, and so when it shows up at the doorstep again — in a month or two or whenever — and I get really depressed again, I don’t have to feel so upset that I’m staring at it in the face again. I can just remember that «oh yeah, this is what happens, it’s not going to last forever and that’s okay» and it still fucking sucks, but at least I’m not depressed about being depressed. It helps a little bit.
You also said this was the funnest record to make. Well, considering the music Mizmor does it’s funny to hear that: I find it’s more tangible as an album in terms of style, compared for example to the 14-minute ambient/drone song on Wit’s End which might have been challenging for the casual listener. This sounds more straightforward and song-like even if the songs are long as well. So why was it fun?
It was fun because of the premise. The reason I made this record was because I felt that I wanted to share: I’ve had thoughts and feelings floating around that I wanted to get out, but when I thought about making a new record and what that usually means to me, I didn’t want to make it. The way I make records is to spend a lot of time meticulously sorting through every detail about the it, starting to obsess over it, and that process isn’t fun. It’s like you have to go on this journey down into the depths of the pit and mine out some diamond to bring up to the surface. It’s really exhausting and taxing, and I simply wanted to see if I could make a record where I suffered less while making it, and see if I could get to the end and feel proud of what I made without getting to the point where I obsess to the point of losing perspective and beginning to suffer over the work. It’s kind of an experiment, because once you make enough records you become curious about making them in a different way than before. I want to keep myself interested and engaged in the work that I do, and not feel like I have to make the same thing over and over again because that’s what people expect and like. I know that I can make a good record from obsessing and having a bad time while I do it, but can I make a good record while keeping the process fresh and interesting, streamlined, efficient and fun for myself? What would that sound like? Would I like it? Would other people like it? Would it sound like Mizmor?
So that’s the approach I had with the record, and the way that it practically came through in the process was that whenever I would come to a point in the tracking where I would be tempted to get stuck, I would just go back to the mindset «well, you’re not gonna get stuck, it’s good enough, get going». I was forcing myself to do that, even if it’s really uncomfortable for me, since I want to stress all the tiniest details, but I learned early in the process that there’s a sweet spot for my performances and takes. The first couple takes you’re still warming up, the third through the sixth is the best of, the seventh, eighth and ninth takes you’re just chasing your tail and can’t do as good anymore. So I kind of hit a stride with that: I still do many takes, you know, sometimes eight or nine on a performance, and be like «aaah, I can’t tell if it’s good enough». That’s where I said «okay, you hit a wall, let’s listen go the fourth, fifth and sixth take, one of those is the best one, you pick that and you keep going, don’t get stuck». So just out of sheer curiosity I forced myself to practice that, which kept it fun! I didn’t get stuck and spend all day troubleshooting a problem that I didn’t need to, just because I have OCD. I’m proud to report that the experiment worked, I love the record and it was fun to make. I find it really freeing and encouraging about making records in the future: obviously Prosaic still intense, full of struggle, talking about depression, anxiety, existential dread and whatnot, but I find these things less negative right now. I’ve accepted this part of experience and it’s helpful to make art to get that out, but I’m just not suffering as much over this sort of heavier aspects of life. I’m just okay with them and want to make music to rage against them but also accept them at the same time.
Your discography is full of collaborations as well. With some people you seem to share a close friendship as well, like with Emma Ruth Rundle or the guys in Thou. What is the main reason that drives you to seek collaborations, given that Mizmor is a solo effort?
For me, the collaborations I’ve done have come out of personal friendships. Respecting one another’s art and coming to the point where you just become curious about making something together. I didn’t necessarily see myself as a collaborator for a long time with this project, because it’s a solo project, and I kind of compartimentalized in solo projects and bands: bands are collaborative, solo projects aren’t. That means I’m not a collaborator. But then it kind of struck me that I can collaborate as Mizmor, and mix that with someone else’s style without losing my identity, and that could be interesting. I’ve done a collaboration with Andrew Black, one with Thou, I have worked with Emma on a couple things although we never did an album together… But yeah, I think it comes from friendship and respect, and also just curiosity. I started to realize that I enjoyed mashing up Mizmor with another sound: on one hand I’m tempted to be stressed about doing that, because Mizmor is a non-collaborative solo thing where I get to have it my way, but when you collaborate with another artist and you sign up for being in relationship and compromising, have a give and take so that both sounds come through, there’s some sort of freedom there. I can let go a little bit, because not every decision has to be one that I would make. The whole point of doing what we’re doing is so that there are decisions that the other entity would make, that I wouldn’t make. That’s why we’re doing this. When I collaborate I’m almost continually tempted to be like «no, I wouldn’t do that» and then I remind myself, «well yeah, that’s why we’re doing this, to do things we wouldn’t do!» I did have to become curious about that, genuinely, before I sort of became okay with wanting to do that. But it’s really fun and I do enjoy it.
Last question, a classic one and I hope you haven’t heard it too much before: name three albums that you would take to a deserted island, or post-apocalyptic shelter for that matter, for any reason (something you listened when you were young, that was pivotal in Mizmor’s development or anything else).
Well: Enya’s Amarantine, I think that I would bring Burning Witch’s Rift.Canyon.Dreams and I would probably bring also The Beatles’ White Album.